Image: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Image: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Image: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Image: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Staghorn Sumac

Rhus typhina

Historically I’ve been reluctant to recommend Smooth or Staghorn Sumac for a residential yard since the root systems of both species are rhizomatous, but in the interest of winter food for birds, if you have the space consider Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina).

Although taller than Smooth Sumac, topping out at a maximum of 30 ft (the size of a small tree), Dr. John Hilty, the expert behind www.illinoiswildflowers.info, describes clonal shoots as being more intolerant of mowing over R. glabra. Applying this strategy can control its spread.

Another important difference between the two is that the flowers of Staghorn Sumac are usually perfect. That is they contain both male and female parts on the same plant. But the flowers, which are greenish-yellow and not showy, are not the reason to add this plant to your yard. Rather is it the cluster of fruit that is produces, each drupe of which is about 1/6” and densely covered in bright red hairs, and its red – burgundy fall leaf color that makes this native shrub a standout in the fall and winter landscape. It would look lovely planted among a mass of Prairie Dropseed or Switchgrass. With its height and only occasional branching, I’ve also thought it would be a good candidate for creating a miniature “forest” for kids when under-planted with Pennsylvania Sedge.

Staghorn Sumac prefers full to partial sun conditions and standard garden to rocky soils that are mesic to dry.

Sumacs have high wildlife value. The caterpillars of a number of moths and several butterflies feed on sumac and rabbits and deer will browse the wood as winter food. Since it is clonal, this should not be a problem. The drupes are winter food for a number of bird species or offer important sustenance during fall migration. Its flowers support bees, wasps and flies with nectar and pollen.

As a side note, I’ve watched a commercial planting of Sumac for a number of years now and have not see any larger colony develop.